You’d expect the 175-year-old gun manufacturer that invented mass production to pull off an orderly trip to the state Capitol and that’s exactly what Colt’s Manufacturing Co. did on Thursday, as 550 employees left a clear message, then returned to work.
“Save our jobs.”
They piled into ten full-size luxury buses, mostly from the Constitution Coach Co., making for an appropriately labeled convoy from the factory of Colt’s and sister company Colt Defense LLC on New Park Avenue, just over the West Hartford line.
It was an action of the company, not the United Auto Workers union that represents 489 people at the firearms plant. The UAW, in fact, has been strangely silent on gun control at the state Capitol this year despite the threat to jobs.
Managers, top executives, union and nonunion staff, first-shifters on the company clock, second- and third-shift workers on their own time — they all traveled together for the 9-minute ride, were unified in chanting that slogan outside the Legislative Office Building, then stood vigil in neat lines on all five levels of the marble atrium, holding red-and-white placards as lawmakers convened yet another hearing on gun control.
“I feel I make a difference,” said Nancy Reder, a buyer of maintenance products and services who has worked at Colt and Colt’s for 35 years. She was talking about both her job and her role in Thursday’s event.
Reder, wearing jeans and a Colt-embroidered denim jacket, was struck by the beauty of the state Capitol in the sunlight as employees marched past the south entrance, under the office windows of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Malloy wants to ban the sale of AR-15 military style, semiautomatic rifles, one of the main products these workers make and sell. Colt’s has been the largest factory contingent to make a stand before lawmakers, but on Monday, Stag Arms closed production in New Britain and brought dozens of workers, and employees of O.F. Mossberg & Sons in North Haven have also made the trip.
It’s not the same message delivered by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, which have brought thousands of people to the Capitol to drive home their points about personal freedom and the Second Amendment.
No, at Colt and Colt’s, the message is about the community — 670 jobs between the two companies at the West Hartford facility, an unknowable number of which would be threatened by an outright ban on AR-15 rifles proposed by Malloy and some Democratic legislators.
They were polite, they moved in and out of the building as one, and they were armed with written talking points: “We are your neighbors and we want a safer Connecticut too. A ban on our product will not make us safer. Keeping firearms out of the wrong hands will.”
Kevin Parkinson, a 14-year security employee at Colt Defense, had a deeper connection to the Newtown tragedy than many, as his wife, Katrina Devona, grew up in that town and attended the Sandy hook Elementary School.
“It hit pretty hard,” Parkinson said, but he, like everyone on these buses, holds steadfastly to the belief that his work is not making the world more dangerous.
There is no wavering on that point, and it was hard to even find Colt employees who have had animated conversations with people who favor a ban on military-style rifles. “For the most part, my family and friends think the way I do,” said Deneen Silvers, a labor relations manager at Colt’s. As for lawmakers on the other side of the issue, she said, “We think we can work together.”
One possible compromise is a full registration requirement, as already exists for handguns, for all firearms that have a pistol grip — or for all rifles. Many of the Colt and Colt’s workers said that wouldn’t be so bad, if it would avert a ban on the AR-15 rifle that’s such a big part of their livelihoods.
Colt and Colt’s, which are separately, privately owned but operate under the same roof under joint agreements, have invested heavily in civilian versions of the AR-15 over the last five years, as sales of the military version, the M-4, have wound down. AR-15 sales in Connecticut are just a small part of revenues, of course, but the stakes of a ban are still perilously high for these workers.
“Let’s say it passes,” Colt’s CEO Dennis Veilleux said. “Our customers are going to try to apply pressure to us by not buying our product. They’re going to come right out and tell us, ‘Get out of Connecticut.”
“If we don’t stand up and fight,” Veilleux added, “they won’t buy our product, in fact they’ll boycott it.”
That’s partly why the company does not officially favor any compromise measures, It’s too bad, but it’s political reality.
Likewise, it’s possible that UAW Region 9A and Local 376 are silent because at the national level, the union is loyal to President Obama, who bailed out the automakers and fought hard to save union jobs. No one at UAW is talking, at any level, even to return my calls and issue a “no comment.”
The regional and local UAW leaders issued a memo to members Wednesday, saying its workers “have a proud tradition of producing the finest forearms in the world…We are committed to keeping our communities safe and strong.”
The memo had no word one way or another about the legislation.
Mike Holmes, the shop chairman at Colt and Colt’s, was one of many employees who remembered a similar day 20 years ago, when hundreds of Colt’s employees filed into the Capitol complex at a time when lawmakers were considering a similar ban on so-called assault weapons. Then-Lt. Gov Eunice Groark broke an 18-18 tie in the Senate, and the 1993 beat a national ban by one year.
“We filled the chambers,” Holmes recalled.
That law, still in effect in Connecticut, leaves room for sale of modified versions of the AR-15, including the one used by the killer in Newtown, which was made by a different company, Bushmaster.
This time, a ban could have no such wiggle room. Stricter background check measures and full licensing requirements for rifles with pistol grips might make sense and would keep Connecticut in the vanguard of gun control legislation.
But bans on equipment make less sense, and no sense at all for individual states to pass. An estimated 8 million military-style rifles are in circulation in the United States and they do not respect state lines.
In late morning, after the bus ride back, all the workers from all the shifts piled back into the 300,000-square-foot complex, with the blue, beveled roofs that identify large factories. The company served lunch for everyone. “They earned it,” Veilleux said as he shook hands and thanked workers, many by first name. “I was going to have it outside but it’s too cold.”
Nancy Reder mused that work is piling up on her desk, and she was eager to jump back into it. “I feel lucky to have the job,” she said. “I don’t take it for granted.”